AFHI & Recordman, I was reading the list of your choices of best Beatles covers - and they almost made me change my own list - a couple of times. However, being steadfast and true (otherwise known as stubborn) is one of my foundamental qualities, so I held my ground. I will, however, mention the songs that presented me with a dilemma when the time comes. Now, on with the list.
At #16 in my list of Beatles covers is a lady who was a friend of the Beatles, being Mick Jagger's girlfriend for a good part of the mid to late 60s. The song Yesterday would be an obvious choice, after all she did have a minor UK hit (#36) with it in 1965. But that Faithfull, the young, radiant, clear voiced beauty is not my preferred version of Faithfull: it's Faithfull the survivor of years of drug abuse, homelessness, and suffering from anorexia, who came back with a vengeance with her 1979 album Broken English that I love most. In that great album, there's her magnum opus The Ballad of Lucy Jordan (if any of you don't know it, check it out pronto), there's the title track, there's the punch in the gut Why D'Ya Do It, there's the Lennonesque Guilt, and finally there's the song by the man himself, Working Class Hero. Lennon's bitterly sarcastic song about working class individuals being processed into the middle classes, into the machine, fitted perfectly to Faithfull's world-weary countenance and bottom-of-the ashtray voice; it gave the song despair, which helped make its bitterness more palatable. With this record, Faithfull began a new career, much more illustrious than the previous one.
At #15 is a cover of Across The Universe. Recordman has proposed a very interesting cover by Slovenian electro-industrial rockers Laibach. AFHI tempted me with Rufus Wainwright's version. My choice, however, is one of my favorite artists of all time; David Bowie. Plus the song has the seal of approval of Lennon himself - he played guitar and sang backing vocals on the track. It appears on Bowie's 1975 album Young Americans.
Being on the subject of Across The Universe, let me kill two birds with one stone here. AFHI proposed, among his 20 favorites, T.V. Carpio's heartbreaking version of I Want to Hold Your Hand from the movie Across the Universe. I absolutely love that movie, in fact I once had a heated argument with a friend who didn't like it. (He tried to blame me for recommending it to him. "The fact that you have no taste is no fault of mine", I replied.)
I wanted to include a song from the movie in this list, but I didn't, for one simple reason: I didn't know which one to choose. There are so many good ones.
The second bird that I'm killing with the same stone also belongs to AFHI: He has Wes Montgomery's instrumental version of A Day In The Life in his list. It's a great one, as is one by Brian Auger. However, I decided not to include any instrumentals in my list. I'm more of a lyrics man and I maintain that the Beatles lyrics, even their simplest ones, deserve to be heard.
Having said that, if I were to choose one instrumental version of A Day In The Life, I would have chosen Jeff Beck's version from the soundtrack of Across The Universe for reasons of dramatic resonance. So, two birds with one stone, here's a little extra, to celebrate a film that I love, my favorite Beatles song of all time and instrumental music in general. AFHI, thanks for giving me this opportunity.
At #14, it's serendipity that while AFHI just mentioned (a few hours before this gets published, but in real time, as I'm writing this) his regret for not including Something by Shirley Bassey in his list, I had already planned to include her in mine.
There are so many versions of Something to choose from: AFHI has selected James Brown, I also like what Andy Williams does with the song, but for me Dame Shirley offers the definitive version. It feels as if she sneaked into George Harrison's mind and uncovered the song's secrets.
At #13 is another song with practically thousands of versions to choose from. Paul's Yesterday is the song in question. After going through many versions, I decided to go with the one by Frank Sinatra. Ol' Blue Eyes had a special way of putting stoic resignation in his songs, with a touch of bravado and a hint of melancholy. Songs like One For My Baby, It Was A Very Good Year and My Way attest to that. This was the spirit that his Yesterday possesed and therefore survived against McCartney's definitive version. Ray Charles, Matt Monro, Marianne Faithfull, all had great versions, but no cover of Yesterday, in my opinion, matched Frankie's.
Now, back to our list of Beatles songs that were actually sung by the Beatles. At #16 is a song that was one of McCartney's contributions to the magnificent album that is Revolver (1966).
A drug song masquerading as a love song, Got to Get You Into My Life was written after McCartney's first experiments with marijuana. "It's actually an ode to pot," he explained, "like someone else might write an ode to chocolate or a good claret."
Lennon described the song as the Beatles "doing our Tamla/Motown bit." But at first, Got to Get You Into My Life was an acoustic number. An early take (available on Anthology 2) has McCartney singing in falsetto where the brass eventually shows up in the chorus.
The horns were a remnant of the band's idea to record Revolver in Memphis. They had long emulated the bass and drum sounds found on American soul records, so they recruited guitarist Steve Cropper of Booker T. and the MG's to produce and dispatched Brian Epstein to scout potential recording locations. All the studios wanted an exorbitant fee to host the Beatles, so they ended up back at Abbey Road.
Thomas Ward of AllMusic said, "McCartney's always been a great vocalist, and this is perhaps the best example of his singing on Revolver. One of the overlooked gems on the album." When asked about the song in his 1980 Playboy interview, John Lennon said, "Paul's again. I think that was one of his best songs, too."
At #15 is one of my personal favorites. Help! was written to be the title track to the Fab Four's second movie — a madcap action comedy originally conceived for Peter Sellers. But the note of desperation in the song was real. "I meant it," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970 (particularly lines like "And now my life has changed in oh-so-many ways/My independence seems to vanish in the haze"). "The whole Beatle thing was just beyond comprehension."
By 1965, Lennon was exhausted from the Beatles' nonstop touring, recording and filming schedule. Off the road, Lennon felt trapped at his estate outside London with his wife, Cynthia, and young son, Julian. "Cynthia wanted to settle John down, pipe and slippers," said McCartney. "The minute she said that to me, I thought, 'Kiss of death.' I know my mate, and that is not what he wants." Lennon also was feeling "paranoid," according to Harrison, about how he looked. "It was my Fat Elvis period," Lennon said. "I was eating and drinking like a pig. I was depressed, and I was crying out for help."
McCartney, in contrast, was taking full advantage of Swinging London, dating Jane Asher — a beautiful young actress from a prominent family who introduced him to high society — and seeing other girls on the side. John "was well jealous of [me] because he couldn't do that," said McCartney years later. "There were cracks appearing [in Lennon's life with Cynthia], but he could only paste them over by staying at home and getting wrecked."
Lennon wrote most of Help! by himself at his estate and then summoned McCartney to help him complete it, which they did in a couple of hours at one of their regular songwriting sessions in Lennon's upstairs music room. Lennon originally wrote Help! as a midtempo ballad, but the Beatles decided to amp up the arrangement in the studio, with Harrison's surf-guitar licks, Starr's thundering tom-toms and the reverse call-and-response vocals that would become the song's trademark. "I don't like the recording that much," Lennon confessed. "We did it too fast trying to be commercial."
Making movies wasn't as fun as it used to be either. "The movie was out of our control," Lennon told Playboy. "With A Hard Day's Night, we had a lot of input, and it was semirealistic. But with Help! [director] Dick Lester didn't tell us what it was all about."
The Beatles all admitted that it probably wasn't the director's fault that the band had so little input. "A hell of a lot of pot was being smoked while we were making the film," Starr said. "If you look at pictures of us, you can see a lot of red-eyed shots; they were red from the dope we were smoking."
"We were smoking marijuana for breakfast during that period," Lennon said. "Nobody could communicate with us. It was all glazed eyes and giggling all the time. In our own world."
This is the right version, but the video is slightly irrelevant:
This is a live version:
At #14, here's a song we've already presented today, in our best covers list. The tune that would go on to become the most covered song in history began as something called Scrambled Eggs. It also began in a dream.
"It fell out of bed," Paul McCartney once said about the origins of Yesterday. "I had a piano by my bedside, and I must have dreamed it, because I tumbled out of bed and put my hands on the piano keys and I had a tune in my head. It was just all there, a complete thing. I couldn't believe it. It came too easy."
In fact, it was so fully formed that he was sure he must have unconsciously plagiarized a melody he'd heard somewhere else. So for months he allowed the unpolished song to sit on the shelf, occasionally strumming a few bars for George Martin or Ringo Starr and asking, "Is this like something?"
Martin recalled McCartney playing him the song as far back as January 1964, before the Beatles even landed in America. McCartney's own recollection has him writing the tune later, but regardless, John Lennon confirmed that the song "was around for months and months before we finally completed it."
For a long time, McCartney couldn't get past the placeholder words "Scrambled eggs/Oh, my baby, how I love your legs." He finished the actual lyrics on a holiday with his girlfriend, actress Jane Asher, creating a frank poem of regret that he has called "the most complete song I have ever written."
Recording the track was more challenging. As Martin explained, "It wasn't a three-guitars-and-drums kind of song. I said, 'Put down guitar and voice just to begin with, Paul, and then we'll see what we can do with it.'" After trying several different approaches, including one with Lennon on the organ, Martin made an unorthodox suggestion. "I said, 'What about having a string accompaniment, you know, fairly tastefully done?' Paul said, 'Yuk! I don't want any of that Mantovani rubbish. I don't want any of that syrupy stuff.' Then I thought back to my classical days, and I said, 'Well, what about a string quartet, then?'"
McCartney still wasn't convinced. "I said, 'Are you kidding?'" he recalled. "'This is a Rock group!' I hated the idea. [Martin] said, 'Well, let's just try it, and if you hate it, we can just wipe it and go back to you and the guitar.' So I sat at the piano and worked out the arrangements with him, and we did it, and, of course, we liked it."
The recording captures the Beatles' inventive spirit, opening the door to a willingness to experiment with new sounds. Yesterday signaled to the world that the Beatles — and Rock & Roll — had made a sudden leap from brash adolescence to literate maturity.
After the session, Martin took manager Brian Epstein aside and quietly suggested that since none of the other Beatles contributed to the track, perhaps the song should be issued as a Paul McCartney solo record. Epstein's response, according to Martin, was, "This is the Beatles — we don't differentiate." Meanwhile, the group was still unsure about Yesterday and didn't release it as a single in the UK. "We were a little embarrassed by it," McCartney said. "We were a Rock & Roll band."
Yesterday quickly went to Number One in the US. (It was one of a half-dozen tracks Capitol left off the American version of the Help! soundtrack and was released as a single instead.) It is the most popular song in the Beatles' catalog, recorded more than 2,500 times — by everyone from Ray Charles and Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra and Daffy Duck — a fact that did not necessarily sit well with Lennon, who had nothing to do with it. Lennon once joked, "I go to restaurants and the groups always play Yesterday. I even signed a guy's violin in Spain after he played us Yesterday. He couldn't understand that I didn't write the song. But I guess he couldn't have gone from table to table playing I Am the Walrus."
This is a live version:
Finally for today, at #13 is a song that was released as a double A-side single with We Can Work It Out on December 1965.
Day Tripper was "a drug song," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970. "I've always needed a drug to survive. The [other Beatles], too, but I always had more, I always took more pills and more of everything, 'cause I'm more crazy."
The song was Lennon's indictment of poseurs. "Day trippers are people who go on a day trip, right? Usually on a ferryboat or something," he said. "But [the song] was kind of 'you're just a weekend hippie.'" In contrast, "We saw ourselves as full-time trippers," McCartney said, "fully committed drivers."
The in-jokes didn't stop with that bit of wordplay. The Beatles put in "references that we knew our friends would get but that the Great British Public might not," McCartney said. "So 'she's a big teaser' was 'she's a prick teaser.' . . . We thought that'd be fun to put in."
Lennon and McCartney conceded that Day Tripper had been a "forced" song, written on deadline for a scheduled December single. While Lennon's blues-based guitar hook may have been his answer to the Rolling Stones' recent #1 hit, Satisfaction, Day Tripper was more complex, a gleaming combination of muscle and intricate arranging.
Lennon's riff builds to a midsong rave-up that climaxes with soaring harmonies and Harrison climbing a scale behind Lennon's solo, until Starr's tambourine roll brings back the original groove. Lennon's half sister, Julia Baird, was perplexed by the complicated nature of the song when she attended the recording session. "It seemed like bits and pieces were being put together," she said. "I can't understand how they got the final version."
Day Tripper was planned as a single, but just a few days later, the Beatles recorded We Can Work It Out, which was generally thought to be a more commercial song. Lennon objected to losing the spot, though, so the two songs were marketed as the first-ever double-A-side single.
Though We Can Work It Out charted higher, Day Tripper was the more popular live number. The Beatles played it every night on their final concert tour, up to the last show, at San Francisco's Candlestick Park on August 29th, 1966. The end of an era.